All images courtesy of the National Football Museum.
The world’s fastest-growing economic power over the last two decades, China has used Olympic sports, and particularly football, as a way of integrating the country into Western markets. Football investment reflects China’s acquisitive overseas policy and acquiring European corporate assets has been part of that strategy. President Xi Jinping is a football enthusiast and previously said he wants China to win the World Cup in the next 15 years and the Chinese FA has committed to grow the sport to 50 million participants by 2050.
Of course, what President Xi Jinping is ignoring is the fact that China has already hosted two football world cups. In my recently published chapter in the Routledge Handbook of Sport and Legacy, I used the idea of asking how small scale tournaments, like Women’s World Cup in 1991 and 2007, may have helped China to build ‘soft’ legacy experience and expertise in preparation for larger Mega Events like the Beijing Olympiad of 2008. We usually understand ‘hard’ legacy to involve changes in infrastructure, whereas ‘soft’ legacy can often be overlooked. So football seems able to access markets that some other Olympic sports cannot, and, at the same time, the cultural and iconic aspects of the sport are attractive to China.
Migration and Global Flows in Football
It may make sense for one of the worlds largest and most populous countries to showcase itself through the mega event, but how did China build the capacity to do so? Many examples relating to football rely upon bringing in expertise, star players and so forth and there remains constant speculation about whether this or that big star will sign to play in China.
Again, we have to remind ourselves that this focus on football’s flows of migration and exploitation of new commercial markets is not new, although the globalised scale is an innovation. Scottish ‘Anglos’ were derided for following the money South to England almost as soon as the newly professional Football League was inaugurated in 1888. In 1950 several high-profile British professional players, including Charlie Mitten, Neil Franklin and George Mountford, moved to Indepentiente of Santa Fe, Colombia for the Princely sum of £2000 signing on fee and £60 a week. This was a short-lived and on their return home all were temporarily banned for their work as economic migrants and were sold by their clubs. Mitten’s Indepentiente signing on fee was reportedly double this sum, and the exact sums may well remain unclear. But what of the ‘little men in grey suits’ who organise world football: how is their expertise in hosting mega events built and how has China learned from that?
Using Mega Events to Brand a Nation on a World Stage
The first thing to note is that the narrative around China has changed considerably in terms of international relations, and especially in sporting contexts. China is actively investing in a number of infrastructure projects across the world, that brings in foreign investment, as well as external influence. Hosting mega events in a variety of sports fits with that wider policy in terms of being part-funded by the licensing organisation, but allowing local branding, accreditation and sponsorship. Both public and state finances provide for these increasingly large festivals, designed ultimately to attract both large numbers of tourists and global media attention.
As both Muller and Roche have indicated in their work on mega events, The Shanghai Expo of 2010 was much larger in terms of visitor numbers than the Beijing Olympic Games of 2008, but international and transnational sport has a prestige that pure commerce can lack, and this is often because of its highly symbolic and nationalistic nature. Part of this is also the ambition of the cost of staging such a transformative event with costs now regularly in excess of US$10 billion, marking out the host as aspirational and a related aspect of public culture capital investment, which appears to build a legacy for the local and regional community .
Not just Olympic Sports: Formula 1
Again Formula 1 is a case in point with the Chinese Grand Prix reputedly one of the largest loss making races in the calendar, offset in what it loses in money by the kudos of hosting the race. Like Formula 1, both the football and the Olympic authorities are moving into Eastern and Southern markets as older European audiences become saturated. We may be moving beyond the era of the mega event into the giga event, which is larger in visitor attraction measures, cost, mediated reach and transformation. Similarly, developments in e-sports are changing the nature of the mega event and blurring lines of who is performing and who is spectating.
Case Study Career: Zhang Jilong
My work on capacity building in mega events in China began in 1999 when I was a consultant to FIFA during the Women’s World Cup in Los Angeles, and again when it was staged there, having been moved from China due to the SARS outbreak in 2003. I presented my work on a panel with Zhang Jilong, a Vice President of the Chinese FA, Marie George Buffet who was at the time French Minister for Sport and Anita De Frantz an Olympic Vice President. I discussed with Zhang Jilong how he had come to sporting administration. Zhang was born in Shandong Province, and graduated from Beijing International Studies University in 1975. He joined the National Athletic Committee and worked in the foreign affairs department, where his language skills helped his career. He joined the Chinese Football Association in 1978 at a crucial time in its history following the Cultural Revolution and the death of Chairman Mao in 1976. With the support of FIFA member Henry Fok, China began to enter into the Asian Games and a number of high profile teams like Pele’s New York Cosmos, and West Bromwich Albion toured the country.
In addition to his role as the foreign affairs director at the State Sports General Administration, in 1989 Zhang joined the Asian Football Confederation’s rules committee, before also serving on the finance committee and was appointed in 1994 to the FIFA Women’s Football Committee. After serving on a number of organising committees for FIFA, Olympic and AFC tournaments, Zhang oversaw the Beijing Olympic Football tournament and acted as chief organiser for football at the 2012 Olympics. He has subsequently stepped down from a number of posts due to the international and domestic travel involved.
So my case study highlighted a relatively neglected aspect of ‘soft legacy’ as China transforms. Namely how individuals, and the organisations for which they work become adept at handling ever-larger sporting events, and not just in their own country but as a national representative on a global stage. So it might seem unusual to focus on a case study of an individual, but sport is often made at an individual level as well as networked at organisational level. If we think of the number of people with whom Zhang Jilong has interacted in the course of his career, we can see that China has built expertise in the administration of football that the country has now exported to London 2012 and other mega events, and this trend of the trained specialist looks set to continue. It’s another form of soft diplomacy and while many focus on the movement of expertise, like elite players, to China, the flows of migration are also changing British football.